In the two years I spent at Windows on the World as wine-school coordinator and cellar master, Kevin Zraly taught me so much about wine—the business, the people, the culture, the beauty of it all. He taught me that persistence pays off, that when people are laughing they are learning, and that a young woman in her 20s could begin a career in the wine industry after all. Much of my professional life—creating wine programs, teaching, doing consumer and corporate events, writing—has been greatly influenced by this incredibly gifted yet incredibly humble man.
In 1993, Zraly was the third-ever recipient of the James Beard Award for Wine and Spirits Professional of the Year; in 2011, he was the first wine professional to earn the Beard Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Yet no one would ever call him lucky. In one five-year period, his house burned to the ground, his daughter was diagnosed with leukemia, he battled cancer (though today he is fine)—and then there was 9/11, which has had a profound impact on him and his family.
It is not every day that I make a grown man cry. I hadn’t been looking forward to asking Zraly about the tragedy—and when I did, it was worse than I expected. His voice shook and he gasped for air before steeling himself to continue. It was agonizing for me to be so close to his pain in those moments. Later, while transcribing our discussion, I was close to tears again—for Kevin, for my fond memories at Windows on the World, for all the lives that were lost, and for the grieving families that had to go on, that still do, with their own memories forever etched in their hearts and souls.
Catherine Fallis, MS
What impact did the Woodstock Festival have on your career path, and who were some early influences?
In August of ’69, I was 19 years old. It was because of Woodstock that I went upstate. That was in Sullivan County; my friends were going to college over in Ulster County. So I went with them. By September I had enrolled in the state-university system and I got a job as a waiter at the DePuy Canal House.
John Novi was the owner and chef of the DePuy Canal House. He had been open six months and had just received a four-star rating from New York Times restaurant critic Craig Clairborne and his entourage—chefs Pierre Franey and Jacques Pépin. So Novi, who still operates on weekends, is getting ready to retire and was an early influence on me; I lucked out in finding this restaurant to work at. I was there to get beer money, but all of a sudden I had to put together the wine list—which I still have, by the way. It’s painted on slate. The first wines were all French except for one Asti Spumante and one German Liebfraumilch. I started putting California and New York wines on the second list.
When I was an altar boy, my parish priest, Father Matarazzo—who is still one of my closest friends—was a huge influence. He is at a church on 65th and Lexington. He’s is retired. My public-speaking abilities came from him. He was a great orator; he gave great sermons, and he always told me, “Kevin, it should never be more than six minutes, and never use notes.” I was ten years old. Then he would say, “What did you think of the homily?” so I had to start listening better! That whole connection between wine and religion was very powerful for me. So when I first got involved with wine at 19, the imprint was already there. In that sense, the church and Jesus were also an influence.
Did we just go from Woodstock to Jesus?
Come on, Jesus would have fit right in at Woodstock! So it was music first. The number-one thing in a sommelier’s life should be more than wine. For me, first is music, including theater. Second is sports. Third is wine, which pays for number one and two.
Early influences would also take me to Windows on the World and a new mentor—[late author and Château Prieuré-Lichine owner] Alexis Lichine. When we opened the restaurant in 1976, there was a financial crisis not only in New York City but also France. I was instructed to “put together the biggest and best wine list New York had ever seen. And don’t worry about how much it costs.” I contacted Lichine and off to Bordeaux we went. It was a fantasy world: “Okay, I’ll take 10 cases of this 1945, five cases of this 1900.” They needed the cash. Alexis Lichine was a Renaissance man. He had Russian, French, and American passports. During World War II he was part of the U.S. intelligence community, like Julia Child and Peter Sichel.
Was there one particular wine that made you realize that you would never be a stockbroker?
I was asked many times by many major companies to become a stockbroker in the early days of Windows, because they loved the way I sold wine, and they thought if I could do that, I could sell stocks. When I was 20, one of my best friends to this day, Peter Bienstock, a Harvard-educated lawyer, would come to the Canal House and bring his own wines. He had a house that was built in 1650 and was renovating it. I would be working at the restaurant and he brought in a Burgundy from the 1940s. When I smelled that wine, it was a Eureka moment. It was all in the combination of John Novi saying to me we needed a wine list now that we had a four-star rating and Peter sharing his wines. It wasn’t just that wine; it was many wines. He is actually still the lawyer for the preeminent wine store Sherry-Lehmann in New York City .
By the way—and this is very important—when I started studying wine in the early ’70s, you only studied French wine. It was probably easier to become a Master of Wine 40 years ago than it is today. You had to be able to tell the difference between a Burgundy and a Bordeaux, a Châteauneuf-du-Pape and a Chinon. The only other thing was a smattering of German whites. I have some of the original wine lists from the 21 Club and the Four Seasons; they were all French. That is important for sommeliers to understand. In today’s world, it is extremely difficult to be a sommelier.
About two years ago, my friend and wine educator Robin Kelley O’Connor and I took a trip literally around the world. We went to 15 countries in 365 days; we went to 100 wine regions and 400 appellations within those regions, tasting over 6,000 wines. I was doing that for an update on the book, and thank goodness my publisher paid for it. What did I learn from that? That this is the golden age for wine.
Recently, in Wine Spectator, Matt Kramer wrote that he was not sure this is the golden age—but that is why I took the trip, to see for myself. That is the good news. The bad news for sommeliers is how much more they have to know. The other bad news is that, for example, at Sherry-Lehmann there are 6,000 SKUs. How do you manuever that? What kind of wine list do you write today? It was so easy in the old days. You just did your French wines, a few Germans, and maybe a few Californians.
What was it like backpacking through Europe and how was it different than hitchhiking across America? Looking back, what role do you think these trips played in helping to form your unique teaching style and writing voice?
Do your remember Simon and Garfunkel’s “America”: “They’ve all gone to look for America?” Or the movie Easy Rider? That was the motivation, partly, to go to California. Hitchhiking across the United States was a fantastic experience. I was 21 years old. I couldn’t go until I was 21 because that was the drinking age in California. In New York you could drink at 18, so I was already teaching a class when I was 20, in 1971. I was teaching about California wines but I couldn’t go there and try them. So in the summer of 1972, when I had no money—which is a recurring theme in my life—I hitchhiked, and made appointments, by letter, to visit all of the wineries. I wasn’t going out there to hang out—I was there to learn about wine.
“Unique” teaching style—thank you. That is polite. I was scared to death of teaching because I didn’t know what I was talking about in those early days. When you can say to somebody that you’ve been to the winery, it changes everything. To be with the Cazes family at Château Lynch-Bages in Pauillac or the Mondavi family in Napa—it’s a continuation of meeting these people and seeing them again 20 years later that is definitely important. I find that the winemakers are so much more down to earth than the wine writers. August Sebastiani would sit there, back when I was 21, and he’d be drinking his wine out of a rocks glass. Today we talk about how we have to have Riedel. As a writer, you want to see it firsthand.
How did you find yourself working in the World Trade Center?
So, I’m at the Canal House in 1970. I start teaching wine. Then I go to California. Then I come back—this is 40 years ago—and I want to teach an accredited wine course at New Paltz State University. My hair was as long as your hair is now. The administration actually asked me to leave. They said, “Why are you here? Of course we’re not going to do an accredited wine program in a state university.
We have enough problems with marijuana!” Those were pretty much their exact words. I learned something from my family, primarily my mother, that it is okay to be politely brazen; as long as you are polite about it, you can go a little further. I went back and they again asked me to leave. Finally I went back one more time and they finally said, “Listen, if you can find a state university that teaches an accredited wine course we’ll consider it.” Well, guess where that was? Cornell. Cornell, though an Ivy League school, is part of the state-university system, and Dr. Vance Christian had started his wine course in 1971. In 1973, I got it passed and taught the first, and only, accredited wine course in the system as a junior teaching seniors. That helped me pay my way through college. There was no silver spoon; there was no money from my family. They just didn’t have the resources.
Okay, so now I’m teaching this class and I graduate college and it’s time to explore Europe. I took Icelandic Airlines, $99 round trip, to Reykjavik and ended up in Luxembourg. I spent almost a year going around Europe, making appointments. It was an amazing experience. I had two suits with me and stayed in youth hostels for $2.50 a night. I can tell you exactly where the one in Bordeaux is, and the one in Dijon—you know, they are still there. The only other thing I had was a Eurail pass.
I met Eddie Osterland, an American who was studying wine at the University of Bordeaux. We became fast friends and traveled around Bordeaux together, visiting all the great châteaux. Eventually, he became the first American Master Sommelier. His daughter is in New York, and I just signed her up for the wine class.
So I came back to the States, and I’m living in this little town of High Falls, and really feeling strange. My friends were saying, “All Kevin does is speak in French.” I was always talking about wine. That’s when I knew it was time to go to the city. I read an ad in the Beverage Media that said, “Salesman wanted. 450 new accounts. New York City, Rockland County, Westchester County.” It was The Charmer-Sunbelt Group, and they hired me.
That’s another story for another time. I’ll tell you about those 450 accounts that didn’t exist. But one person gave me a piece of paper and said, “Go see Barbara Kafka,” who at that time was one of the consultants for the restaurant at the World Trade Center. “See if you can get into that account and sell wine.” Kafka didn’t want to see me. And I just sat there for weeks, on the 18th floor of One World Trade Center, waiting to see her. Waiting for Godot, waiting for Barbara Kafka—same thing. Finally, she did see me. And I’ll just cut to the chase. She said, “Why are you here?” and I said, “I work for Charmer and I am here to sell you wines and help you with your wine list.” She said, “Who the fuck are you?” If you met her, you’d understand. After about an hour, she realized that I knew wine and introduced me to Joe Baum, the creator of Windows on the World.
What was working for him like?
They happened to be looking for—and this is important for sommeliers—a young American. Joe was so far ahead of his time. I’m writing a screenplay about him. He didn’t want to call anybody a “sommelier” because he did not want any French connotations whatsoever. The term was “cellar master.” And it stayed that way for 25 years.
When I got the job, I had just turned 25. Joe put me charge of the entire wine program. He actually wanted me to run the bars as well. I would’ve been dead by now. I said, “No, I’m a wine guy,” and he said, “OK, just do the wine list.” I asked, “how many cellar masters can I have?” He said, “Excuse me?” I reworded the question: “How many assistants can I have?” And he responded, “None—you’re it.” That is where I had to make all of the captains cellar masters. Remember all the trainings we used to do with the captains and waiters? A lot of them went into the business, did you know? Over 100 former Windows staffers went into the wine business, like you, importer Michael Skurnik, and teacher and author Andrea Robinson. So my job was to get everybody involved in wine; the only downside was that so many of them wanted my help to go into the wine business. But at that point, I felt they had given 150%, so why not? I helped.
What were your responsibilities for in the other World Trade Center outlets, such as the City Lights Bar, the Hors d’Oeuvrerie/Greatest Bar on Earth, and Cellar in the Sky/Wild Blue?
Anywhere on the 107th floor, also downstairs in the Market Bar and Dining Room. At one time, the company controlled everything in the World Trade Center, from coffee and hamburgers to Windows on the World. Back then, in the mid-1970s, it was a $50-million-plus company. Jacques Pépin worked with us at the very beginning; so did James Beard. So one day I’m selling wine for Charmer—selling nothing, by the way—and the next day I’m sitting with Jacques Pépin, James Beard, Joe Baum, and Barbara Kafka shooting the shit, you know? I remember Beard telling me about how he used to teach the wait staff at the Four Seasons. I think if there is a word you could use about this, it was magical!. The magic of John Novi, the magic of Joe Baum, and the magic of their restaurants.
The Cellar in the Sky was another way that Joe Baum was ahead of the curve when it came to wine and food. How many people back in 1977—and it was thought of four, maybe five years earlier—would design a 32-seat concept where the wine was chosen first?! Remember when you put together the menus? Every two weeks, we had to choose five wines and then we would take them to the chef to go with a seven-course meal! Today, it is the reverse for most sommeliers; now the chefs tell you, “Here’s the food, you put the wine with it.” It is easier the other way around: “Here are the wines; let’s talk about the food.” The Cellar in the Sky existed all the way up to the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993. When we reopened in 1996, we changed the location but kept the same format. When chef Michael Lomonaco took over the kitchen, he wanted to have his own style of restaurant, which he deserved, and it became Wild Blue, though it still had a wine theme.
What was it like in the heyday of Wall Street? What kind of wines were you selling to the traders and stockbrokers?
It wasn’t just Wall Street—it was called the World Trade Center. That’s where all the shipping companies were, the freight companies. They would start working at 4 a.m.; noon was their cocktail hour. So the three-martini lunches were real, and continued on until 3 or 4 in the afternoon. That place was packed. We didn’t serve breakfast at that time. But we served lunch and dinner, and there were lines to get in. 1989-1991, those were really good years for the economy. Everybody was celebrating. If they closed a good deal, they would celebrate at Windows. Our wine prices were so low that they would spend a tremendous amount of money. Unfortunately, what they bought was probably based on price more than on what they knew about wine. It was a little bit of the Wild West: they had the money. We were a short walk from Wall Street. And they loved coming up and depleting our wine cellar.
How did your role change over time?
From 1976 to 1981, I was the cellar master. A busboy who became a captain and then a manager, Ray Wellington, took over as cellar master and I was hired by Hilton International (which ran Windows on the World) as international wine director. It was a fascinating time in my life because I went around the world with Hilton and also kept the title of wine director at Windows on the World until September 11. In 1979, Hilton International was the first hotel chain to create an American wine program outside of the United States. I literally placed Robert Mondavi’s hand into the hand of Chuck Bell, Hilton International’s president. That is how we got started. I helped get American wines into hotels and restaurants in the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, and others. The only wines being exported up to that time were the big ones, like Gallo. So I feel I played a little part in the movement to get American wines into the global market. After our success, all the other major hotel chains followed suit.
Did you invent the sliding scale for wine markups that you popularized at Windows on the World? Do you think it’s still applicable today?
I presented the first wine list to Joe Baum with prices that I thought were very reasonable. Do you know what he said to me? He said, “Here’s the Cornell method. It’s what I learned at the hotel school. Double the price you paid for it and add a dollar. So if it costs us $4, we’re gonna sell it for $9.” Double it plus a dollar. Even with that, Joe is underappreciated for everything he did. We worked together to maintain pricing. When Hilton International came in as partner and wanted to raise prices, Joe said, “I’d rather sell two bottles of wine at $20 than one bottle at $40.” And within three years, we were selling millions of dollars’ worth of wine. As the market changed years later, I created the progessive wine list, which had higher prices for the lower-priced wines and lower markups on the higher-priced wines.
Everyone in the industry knows you lost not only a restaurant but a number of colleagues on 9/11. Have the ensuing years brought you any perspective on the tragedy?
I was in White Plains today; I just drove back to New Paltz to talk with you. I was with a fellow named Glenn Vogt. Glenn was the last general manager at Windows. He was there that day. He was driving down the West Side Highway and got out of his car and ran in to try to go up the elevator and help his employees. We sat down and talked for hours. I don’t know how to answer that question. You’ve had your own tragedies. You’ve had your own traumas. Everyone handles them differently. That’s part one. And there will always be a lingering pain. It will never go away. We were actually discussing today how his wife and children, my wife and children, were affected and still are to this day. I have four children, and two of them were severely affected by September 11. Somebody should do a whole story about the children of 9/11, whether their parents did or didn’t make it out. Is there a new perspective to the tragedy? I live it every day. So I’m not exactly sure what the answer is. September 11 set me back physically, emotionally. I got physically sick. It was a bad time. It still is. A year and a half later, my daughter was diagnosed with leukemia. Then the year after that my house burned down, totally. It’s gone. And there is more we are dealing with. Much more. I try to keep my optimism high, and I’ve just finished writing my soon-to-be released autobiography, called A Glass Half Full.
In what is still a very male-dominated field, you had no issues with hiring young women to work with you at Windows on the World, myself included. Was there a particular influence somewhere along the line that inspired you to do this?
Catherine, I love women. That’s number one. Actually, a lot of my friends in high school were women whom I’m still in touch with. And a lot of people who worked there, like Andrea Robinson and Rebecca Chapa, and Jan Petrow, who has been working for Vineyard Brands for 30 years—she was the first woman to work in the wine cellar. But all this goes back to Joe Baum. I do not want to take all the credit. He’d crash my training sessions and say, “Kevin, make sure that the waiters and captains ask who would like the wine list. Don’t automatically give it to the man. Don’t be a chauvinist.” I also think that women taste wine in a different way. I have a wine club, the Sherry Lehmann/Kevin Zraly Wine Club. It’s me, the president, Mick Yurch, and Claire Defoe. We taste together every week for the wine club, and it is just interesting listening to Claire’s comments on what she is picking up that I might miss. The fact is that women do have a better sense of smell than men, and I think that they have a different approach to appreciating wine. I’ve never said this before, but I am thinking out loud right now. Think about perfume. I only wore the cologne English Leather as a teenager. It smelled sweet. I watch my 14-year-old daughter, Adriana, and I have noticed how different she is, how many different perfumes she has. Do you know how much money it costs me to go into Sephora? More than gas. I think that women are brought up with a little more sensitivity to smell.
You created and still run the most successful wine school in the country. How did that come about?
If you recall, we were a club at lunch. We had over 3,000 members. Do you remember the club director, Jules Roinnel? He’s retired down in Virginia. But he would put on all of these different events and he said, “Let’s do a wine class for the club members.” We had 12 people for the first one; that was in the fall of 1976. We taught once a week. I taught Class One and Class Six, and in between were the original New York Times wine critic Frank Prial, who just passed away; German wine expert Peter Sichel; Mary Ewing-Mulligan, MW, would teach Italian wine. Then he said, “Well, listen, if a club member wants to bring a guest, let’s do that.” And all of a sudden we’re up to 30 people. By the next year, we had more guests than club members, so we decided to open it up to the public. Since then we’ve had over 20,000 students. And I’m very, very proud of the fact that the school has run for 37 years uninterrupted—even in 1993, after the bombing at the World Trade Center. We’d already started our February session, and the Port Authority wanted to keep the classes going—they wanted to keep the name Windows on the World out there, even though it was closed from 1993 to 1996. We moved to 7 World Trade Center to finish those classes, then we moved back into the WTC, and finally over to the Vista Hotel, which later became a Marriott. All of it gone now. All of it. But we continued the classes. After September 11, the last thing in the world I wanted to do was teach a wine course. Why did I continue? Because my peers, the people working in the wine cellar, Michael Lomonaco, Glenn Vogt, Jules Roinnel, my family, and my therapist at the time—probably most importantly my therapist—said that the best way to heal is to do what you do best. I was very lucky to know the general manager of the Marriott Marquis, Mike Stengel. When we moved the wine school there, he just did everything to help me out. So now we’re going into the 37th year, and the funny thing is I just started taking credit cards last year. That goes back to John Novi, who wouldn’t take credit cards at the Canal House. For 36 years I got away with taking checks. Now Paypal is my best friend.
How did the school lead to the country’s best selling wine book?
The first thing I can say about the book is, I grew up in a town called Pleasantville, which was very “pleasant.” It was the home of Reader’s Digest. My grandmother would come to our house every Friday night, bringing all the publications that had the condensed version of books or articles, and I read all of them—they were so easy to read. My book is the condensed version of wine. I felt there were no books out there that easily addressed this very difficult subject. The only basic book at the time was Alexis Bespaloff’s Signet Book of Wine, which was used in Cornell University’s wine classes. But my students thought it was too complicated. My degree is in elementary education. So take that all in and look at my book one more time—it is the elementary-education wine book. We have now sold over 4 million copies. I guess you could call it my best annuity. I’m very blessed that my publisher allows me to edit the book every year, and now it is interactive, with audio and visual elements through a free smartphone app. You scan the page and can hear “Trockenbeerenauslese” pronounced by a German speaker, “Brunello di Montalcino” by an Italian speaker, and so on. For the first time ever, in 2014, I’m coming out with a wine calendar. We are also making this interactive with QR codes. So it’s not just one of those things you put on your desk with wine quotes like “A day without wine is like a day without sunshine.” My publisher, Sterling, is owned by Barnes and Noble; it has helped the book to have such a good distributor and marketer.
And you created what has become the country’s most recognized wine event in conjunction with Wine Spectator. Tell us about that.
I created the New York Wine Experience in 1981; the first three were held at Windows on the World. It was done, obviously, for promotion for the restaurant, and it is still happening 30 years later. I directed the whole program for the first 10 years; then Wine Spectator took over the California Wine Experience, which had started the year before in San Francisco. Both are still the best wine events in the country, using basically the same format I put together in 1981. What they did was get people together to experience fine wine. If you recall, we had the wine school for beginners and intermediate students, but we also had the advanced wine classes, which were very high end. The Wine Experience was just an expanded version of those. They held 100 people, and the first Wine Experience only had about 100 people too. The second year we had 250, so we had to move it out of Windows, and that is how it got to be at the Marriott Marquis.
Today I teach master classes in conjunction with Sherry Lehmann. Thursday night, our guest speaker was Piero Antinori. Last week, we had the winemakers of Châteaux Canon and Rauzan-Ségla. Three weeks ago, our guest was Francis Ford Coppola, who showed his new Inglenook wines. That was just in the past month. We have about 75 people coming to those classes. When the Wine Experience hit 1,200 people, I felt it was not my thing any more. In the fall of 1991, my first child, Anthony, was born and I felt I should spend more time with my family. So I’m very happy to say I created one of the greatest wine events in the world; even more important for me was that it was set up as a 501-C corporation. As a 501-C, you have to donate part of the earnings every year; it must go to charity. My first choices were Cornell and the Culinary Institute of America. Toady Cornell has the Wine Spectator Room and the CIA has the Wine Spectator Restaurant in Napa Valley, all paid for by the scholarship foundation. So the New York and California Wine Experience events are still providing funds for charities. They were among the most important things I have done, because they brought together a lot of people with the best wines in the world.
How do you think the wine industry has changed since your early days in the restaurant business?
It is a total transformation. Look at this Beverage Media from 1976. Most of these wholesalers are no longer in business. The importing and distribution of wine has totally changed. You now have two major companies in the United States: Southern Wine & Spirits and The Charmer-Sunbelt Group.
And just as in any other business, you have lots of mergers and acquisitions. In the old days, when I was 20, wine was not understood and consumption was very low. In the early ’70s, I had a rep who came in to the Canal House, and I would ask him for a case of Nuits-Saint-Georges and he didn’t know what I was talking about. And I thought, here is a guy making $50,000 a year, and I’m in college, bartending, working in a restaurant, making $5,000 ayear. Why was I going to college? In the first place, to find a profession. He was a good salesman, but he didn’t know anything about wine. So I called his boss, and his boss didn’t know anything either. Finally I called the distribution company and spoke with the owner, and he had no idea what Nuits-Saint-Georges was!
Wine then was East and West Coast centric. Now it is all over the country. All 50 states have at least two wineries, and the United States is now the number-one consumer of wine in the world. Also, there is a new breed of sommelier. When I started at Windows, there was not much wine education available other than reading, tasting, and visiting wine regions on your own. Now there are all sorts of societies and organizations where you get your diploma or become a Master Sommelier or Master of Wine. When I started, there were only two sommeliers in New York City—me and some guy that was 75 years old at some French restaurant uptown.
Today, almost every restaurant has a sommelier or somebody who knows about the wine list, which is the good news. My point is, you go to one restaurant on this block and one on the next block, and the sommeliers have completely different wine lists—and I understand that. I think it’s great to be innovative. But how far do you go? My whole concept to this day is to be 80% inside the box and 20% outside. Let’s take Burgundy. I’m going to use the wines of Faiveley. I’m going to use the wines of Jadot. They were there when I started, and they’re better than they’ve ever been. Another sommelier will try to find a lesser-known producer. My point is that many sommeliers use a different method—20% inside the box and 80% outside—which might be difficult for consumers.
There is more interesting wine. There are more sommeliers than ever before. There are more wine choices. And you’re right—they’re getting bombarded with reps. I would find it much more difficult, in all honesty, to be a sommelier today.
Here’s another major change. From my research, according to the National Restaurant Association, over 50% of all wine sales are made by the glass in white-tablecloth restaurants. This is a big shift, and I’m all for it. I’ve always said wines by the glass are the greatest thing for consumers, because they have more choices; they’re good for the restaurant as they can get a better markup; and the distributor is happy because they get a volume order. So it is a win-win-win situation for everybody. There are so many wines out there. And all arrows point to the United States. Italy wants to be here. South Africa wants to be here. Everyone wants to be here. It’s got to be tough on a sommelier, to make the right choices for the wine list.
How has the restaurant wine experience changed for today’s diner?
I think there will always be classic restaurants. Take a look at Boulevard [in San Francisco], for example. Do you call that a classic restaurant?
A classic casual bistro, yes.
So we have to discuss what “classic” means. How many French restaurants are left in New York? I recently went to La Grenouille, who won the 2012 national award for Best Service from the James Beard Foundation, and talked to the owner, Charles Masson. It is hard for him; he still requires jackets and ties. So he opened the upstairs for a more casual experience. The casual customer can enjoy the upstairs artist’s loft, which is beautiful. Downstairs, you have the same customers that have been coming for 40 years. Yes, I think dining is definitely going more casual. According to Zagat, the top three New York City restaurants—Gramercy Tavern, Union Square Café, and Gotham Bar and Grill—are more casual. But then again, there are Bouley, Per Se, and Jean-Georges, which are doing very well.
So the wine industry has changed, but the food industry has also changed. Cooking has changed. When I started in the early days, sommeliers were the stars. Chefs never came out of the kitchen. This was very important; they were not supposed to come out of the kitchen. They were there to cook.
But today’s chefs are on the Food Network, they have their own shows, and they are very visible in the dining room. So what I think you have is a parallel change. You have Americans taking on the culinary world, going to great restaurants, and at the same time they are exploring and drinking wine. It’s a big change both ways.
I still think markups are too high in restaurants. I do all these dinners, as you do, for corporations and I’m shocked at what restaurants are charging. You walk into some restaurants today and you can’t find even one wine that’s under $75. I don’t think that is healthy for the wine business or the restaurant business. I find myself frequenting restaurants that have great food but don’t overcharge on the wines.
What advice do you give aspiring sommeliers today?
First of all, I am not a Master Sommelier or a Master of Wine. That option didn’t exist in the United States when I started. There were very few schools. That’s why I created mine. I didn’t really create it for the industry; I created it because there wasn’t anything around for consumers. Harriet Lembeck was there, and her beverage program still continues, but that was more for the industry, teaching about wines, spirits and beer.
I think sommeliers cannot have only book knowledge. If I owned a restaurant today, or if I had a distribution company or a wholesale or importing house—and I might get in trouble for saying this, but why not, right?—I wouldn’t hire a wine person. I’d hire a salesperson and teach them about wine because at the end of the day, though I hate to sound so businesslike, it does come to the sale. All sommeliers are salespeople, whether they like it or not. That is why they can make that transition sometimes into the distribution world. But the fact that you know wine doesn’t in and of itself mean you can sell it. Just having a certificate saying you’re a sommelier isn’t enough. Studying to be a Master of Wine or a Master Sommelier forces you to learn more and affords you the opportunity of trying many different wines. But for me, the best way to learn about wine is to go to where wine is made. It’s experiential learning that matters most. It never ends, and it’s difficult. You’re working all these late hours in a restaurant and you don’t have a family life, and I’m saying, “Get up and travel now. Take your two weeks of vacation and visit a wine region.” But you need to go to understand the wine, the people who make that wine, and the food they serve it with.
Besides the Windows on the World Wine School and the Sherry Lehmann master classes, what other projects are you working on?
Well, we have Obama for four more years, and we have Kevin Zraly for four more years. By then the wine school will be 40 years old. And at some point in time, you have to say I did it, it worked, but I will probably end my involvement then. The Windows on the World Wine School will continue, affiliated with wine bars in different cities around the country. I wrote that business plan a long time ago. I’m only going to work with quality educators. I only want to deal with quality wine.
Also you may recall I have worked with Robert Parker and his team for the past eight years. I think what Robert Parker does is quality. Robert Parker and I created a wine-certification program. This is sort of like what you are doing with your Six-Week Wine Expert online-education program—trying to get to the masses. And of course Asia is a very big market. The new owners of The Wine Advocate and eRobertParker.com want to emphasize education. And so we are meeting to discuss that.
What do you enjoy doing when you are not working?
The number-one thing in my life is the arts—music and theater. I had a band called the Winettes. People paid us not to play! It was originally Joey Delissio of the River Café, Michael Skurnik, Josh Wesson [retailer/author], Bryan Miller [former New York Times restaurant critic), and me.
Number two in my life is sports. I’ve been coaching basketball for as long as I’ve been involved in wine. I am now coaching my third son, Harrison, who just turned 16. Harrison started as a freshman, and as a sophomore he’s at quarterback and safety. Unfortunately, he broke his finger and had to sit out the first part of this past season, but in his first game back he scored 17 points. So I get joy out of watching sporting events; we go down to the city a lot to watch games. There are a lot of sports writers out there who turn into wine writers, like Dan Berger and Sports Illustrated writer Paul Zimmerman. I’m proud to say that at 62 I can still throw a 40-yard pass, kick a 30-yard field goal, and make three-point shots in basketball.
Number three is wine, and it pays for numbers one and two. But I will say that the most important thing in my life is my children—Anthony, 21: Nicolas: 19, Harrison,16: and my princess, Adriana, who’s 14.
Planet Grape’s popular and entertaining speaker and host for corporate and private events, Master Sommelier Catherine Fallis, aka grape goddess, is also a professional Champagne sabreuse, a Contributing Editor of Sommelier Journal, the San Francisco Champagne Examiner for Examiner.com, the drinks columnist for Basil Magazine, a frequent contributor to CNBC’s WinePortfolio.com and Nation’s Restaurant News, a French Wine Scholar, and an instructor at the San Francisco Wine School. Like her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/planetgrape and follow her on Twitter @planetgrape.
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